Afghanistan has always been prone to natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes which, upon their occurrence, have devastated homes, displaced people and took human lives. Floods, landslides and earthquakes are the three most frequent natural calamities in Afghanistan. As if the curse of wars, conflicts, poverty and hunger do not suffice, floods and landslides are a constant threat in many rural areas throughout the country. In addition to these three calamities, avalanches, salinization of soil, soil erosion and degradation, droughts, famine, sandstorms, various crop blights such as locusts and many more are always a present threat able to strike at any corner of the country catching the vulnerable people unaware.
Right now, widespread flooding in the Eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces has resulted in the death of scores of Afghans, has devastated more than 150 homes and compounds, washed away hundreds of livestock and destroyed countless hectares of agricultural land. The existing poor infrastructural facilities such as small hydroelectric power stations, bridges and culverts, paved roads and schools have been reduced to mud and rubble.
Earthquakes are frequent in the Northern regions of our country wreaking havoc with people and lives. The devastating earthquake that shook the Northern Province of Takhar in February 1998 stands out as one of the prime examples of nature's fury in Afghanistan and the extent of vulnerability of the people. According to available statistics, more than 4500 people were killed in a matter of seconds in Takhar as the earthquake caught tends of thousands unaware in their mud-brick houses and compounds. There was literally no organized relief and rescue mission as there was no government in place; perhaps so most of the casualties were the result of the injured and homeless left unattended in far-off villages and towns. Another earthquake in the May of the same year hit the same province and the surrounding areas, killing and maiming thousands more and devastating families and livelihoods.
Floods in Afghanistan mainly occur in post-winter warmer months when the winter snow melts and glaciers tucked away in the lap of Afghan mountains start to feed the rivers and springs. Continued deforestation and destruction of green cover and vegetation over decades ensure that there is no natural barrier left to regulate the flow of post-winter water flows. The result, as we are witnessing in the Eastern provinces, is floods and the devastation that it wreaks.
Avalanches are another commonplace natural hazard that afflicts communities located far into the mountainous regions with the arrival of the harsh Afghan winter. Every year, the news have become routine of people losing lives to avalanches and communities losing contact with the outside world for months due to closed mountain passes and roads.
The ongoing trends confirm the fears that Afghanistan, in all likelihood, is going to witness more natural disasters in the years to come. Trends such as ongoing deforestation, soil erosion and degradation, continued loss of green cover with no major initiative to replenish the lost green cover, the still unregulated water resources across the country, the imminent population explosion and rising congestion with Afghanistan's population set to double in 30 years, all mean that Afghanistan's tryst with natural calamities will worsen in the absence of effective counter-measures.
The government's response to natural calamities
As early as 1972 and during the Late King Zahir, the government of Afghanistan at the time established a disaster management agency. At present and in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the same agency has been refurbished into the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA). Another commission comprised of various ministries and government agencies under the name of the National Commission for Disaster Management has been created with the task of coordinating the activities and programs of various ministries and national agencies towards greater preparedness and risk mitigation.
Afghanistan's National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) has as its mandate taking the lead and coordination of all national relief programs in the event of occurrence of any natural calamity. It also seeks to promote public awareness and education, training and preparing and deploying facilities to deal with the immediate fallout of a natural a calamity. It also prepares and advises the legislative and executive agencies of the government of Afghanistan on all issues related to disaster preparedness and relief. It is the supreme national agency in issues related to disaster management and relief operations.
A National Emergency Operation Center has also been established under ANDMA with the critical tasks of collecting on-the-field information from all 34 provinces of the country and disseminating the relevant information to concerned agencies of the government of Afghanistan and foreign governments and partners. It operates as the heart of the ANDMA providing the critical information flow and supply chain network throughout Afghanistan. Its monitoring centers work round the clock seven days a week keeping in contact with regional centers and provincial governments.
While one can clearly see, the institutional and policy requirements for dealing with Afghanistan's disaster management dilemmas are already in place and ready. However, this constitutes only the first step of a long road that demands a sustained and integrated approach by the government of Afghanistan In the works of any modern government including Afghanistan, creating the institutional capacities should go with creating the legislative and policy frameworks to guide the work and activities of the established institutions.
While ANDMA is the institution, the National Plan for Disaster Management and the National Disaster Management Policy work as the legislative and policy frameworks for regulating the activities of various agencies and the government of Afghanistan as a whole. ANDMA, in partnership with other organizations such as the Afghan Red Crescent Society, NGOs and UN agencies, has distributed food and other emergency supplies in disaster-stricken areas of Afghanistan since 2005. It has also carried out public awareness and education campaigns in disaster preparedness in many provinces.
While these activities are welcome steps towards reducing the pain, suffering and human and economic loss caused by rampant natural calamities in Afghanistan, the challenge in front of Afghanistan is enormous. First of all, ANDMA and other national agencies such as the Red Crescent Society remain short of funding and under-resourced to deal with the magnitude of the challenges. Resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the people and communities in Afghanistan who are affected by natural disasters require massive funds and resources that these agencies and the government cannot afford.
While this is the immediate problem, dealing with the challenge of natural disasters need to be transformed into an integrated and long-term perspective and process during which every ministry and agency of the government of Afghanistan takes into account natural disaster risk mitigation in its long-tern planning and activities. The issue needs to become the business of all government agencies with a holistic view rather than only the business of ANDMA and the Red Crescent Society alone.